Issue 61 (2018)

Tat'iana Everstova: His Daughter (Ego doch' [Kini kyyha], 2016)

reviewed by Elizabeth Papazian © 2018

The Far North has long been the object of the modern imagination, of its longings for a pure, untouched, more authentic reality to serve as a mirror (in Yuri Slezkine’s terms), or perhaps a portal into a distant, mythic past. It is no accident that the film now considered the first feature-length documentary, Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922), is an ethnographic film set in the Far North of the western hemisphere. Fatimah Tobing Rony (1996) has described this film’s “taxidermy” of a lost, timeless, premodern world, without money or guns, in which technological modernity, embodied by a gramophone, offers only unmitigated wonder and joy, and no hint of the actual results of colonization—of illness, violent conflict, destruction of nature, or annihilation of ethnic groups. A rather different gramophone reappeared in the Far North of Dziga Vertov’s One Sixth of the World (1926), this time in the eastern hemisphere, where it would offer, alongside the goods brought yearly to the Nenets (Samoyed) peoples to trade for furs, not only the wonder of recorded sound, but the voice and ideas of Vladimir Ilych Lenin.

nanook
one sixth of the world

His Daughter, set in a village in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), presents itself as a filmed memoir of the childhood of a woman whose given name, Tatiana, happens to be the same as that of the filmmaker. And although the film does evince a longing for a pure and authentic Sakha culture, its temporal setting is not some distant mythic past, but rather the concrete year 1972, given in a subtitle at the beginning of the film. At the same time, a note in the end credits connects the film with the poetic-ethnographic tradition of Dovzhenko, Konchalovskii, and Parajanov: “People from villages Myndaba, Mayagas and Borogontsy of Ust-Aldan ulus took part in short and crowd scenes.”

ego doch
ego doch
ego doch

In its opening shots, the film establishes its response to Flaherty’s and Vertov’s images of modern communication technology in the form of a radio, attached to the wall, which provides a crackly soundtrack—the Soviet national anthem, followed by a snippet of the news in Russian, then a weather report in the Sakha language (with helpful intertitles that inform us of the temperature, negative 45 degrees). An elderly couple goes about winter morning chores: lighting the fire in the stove, putting on the kettle, bundling up to go outside, bringing in a huge block of ice to melt for water. The pace is slow and deliberate, with long, elegant takes that move around the couple as they work silently in tandem, revealing each activity as part of a continuous, interwoven daily routine, and offering, in lieu of the parameters of study of a culture different from one’s own, an illusion of unbroken time that renders an experience of otherness.

ego doch
ego doch
ego doch

Of course, the viewer unfamiliar with this culture learns something about a way of life, starting with the way that life in an extremely cold climate must confront the simple relationship among the various states of matter (solid, liquid, gas) at different temperatures, not only in the process of making tea, but, more astonishingly, when a door closed after someone going outside in the dark winter morning lets a cloud of steam into the house.

ego dochAs the couple sits down for breakfast, a voiceover begins—not to offer explanation, but rather to situate the represented world as a personal memory:

My childhood was filled with events, good ones and bad ones. I want to tell you about just a few of them, those which either still bring tears to my eyes, or make me incredibly happy.
 
ego doch It is only after the couple has their morning chores well underway that the elderly woman passes into another room, picking up and arranging a pair of small furry boots and a set of clothes as she walks to a bed and wakes and dresses a half-sleeping little girl, that we realize that it is this little girl, Tanechka, whose perspective shapes our perception and understanding of the environment. When Tanechka comes to the table, the camera lingers on an audiovisual composition not unlike the tableaux of Parajanov, set to a Yakut song played on the radio, of the three family members engaged in a rhythmic morning routine: the grandmother braiding Tanechka’s hair, Tanechka eating her breakfast of kerchekh, and the grandfather packing Tanechka’s book bag for school. Tanechka is bundled up to go outside, and a brief scene outdoors, with the grandfather pulling his granddaughter to school on a sled, concludes the introduction; the rest of the film takes place in summer, revealing the rhythms of everyday life of that season through the narrator’s memories of childhood and of her intimate connection with nature.

ego dochIf, according to Rony, Flaherty “removed signs of history, such as the history of the Inuit encounter with Whites, in order to sustain the signs of the Ethnographic: the myth of the Inuit as archetypal Primitive man” (Rony 1996: 126), Everstova instead emphasizes the imbrication of Soviet and Yakut cultures. In an interview with the director in Svobodnaia pressa, the interviewer Dmitrii Kuznetsov (2016) argues that although there are many moments of specifically Yakut culture in the film, “at the same time, the domestic everyday life of the grandfather and grandmother is more…a neutral Soviet one than a Yakut one,” featuring a village house, kitchen implements and furniture, a television—all very familiar to anyone who grew up in the 1970s in the Soviet Union. Everstova replies that yes, “the everyday life is Soviet, not Yakut,” but then goes on to explain that the grandparents in the film “are raising [Tanechka] in a traditional Yakut way,” even though “Many aspects of Yakut everyday life had disappeared” (Kuznetsov 2016).

The grandparents in the film strive to reinforce their culture, to instill in their granddaughter the traditional beliefs and practices, in the face of their disappearance. In general, perhaps because the film is presented through a child’s perspective, the Soviet state’s regulation of people’s lives is barely mentioned. Soviet power is simply a fact of life. The grandfather mentions visiting Moscow on the way home from the front after the war, because he wanted to see Red Square; some elderly men visit the grandfather and talk about the kolkhoz. An exception is when the grandmother is approached by a neighbor seeking “Yakut treatment” for her baby, because “Doctors were unable to help.” The grandmother replies, “You know it’s prohibited,” but then takes the neighbor into an outbuilding, out of sight of Tanechka and the camera, to treat the baby.

ego doch
ego doch
ego doch

But the sense of an ongoing struggle between traditional ways and an encroaching Soviet technological modernity pervades the entire film. On a trip with her grandfather to cut and stack hay, Tanechka hears about how in the past the whole family lived in the alaas (a round meadow with a small oval lake in the middle, formed by melting permafrost), whereas now the grandfather travels from the village there every day in summer. The grandfather exhorts her to “Take care of this quietness, don’t destroy it, listen to it.” His instruction serves as a description of the film itself, whose attention to the rhythms and processes of rural life conveys a certain resistance to the forces of assimilation of the local into a globalized modernity.

ego dochOf course it is the most attractive elements of Soviet modernity that are the most threatening. When a television appears in the house, the first images the family sees on screen are of a lock being picked to a jazz soundtrack: the beginning of El'dar Riazanov’s Beware of the Car (Beregites' avtomobilia,1966). Their apparent shock seems to stem as much from the vision of the urban, cosmopolitan culture of the capital as it does from the crime theme. At the end of the movie, Tanechka’s aunt states with ambivalence that it seems that the television is a new “teacher” in the house; her uncle tells the children never to turn on the television unless an adult is present. On another evening, the family watches a documentary about Moscow. The television, like the radio, provides the invisible and indissoluble link between the center and the periphery, a spirit that counters and even thwarts the spirits of the forest and meadows that the narrator calls “the invisible spiritual world of my father.”

In an interview in the newspaper Yakutiia, Everstova alluded to the mission of her film as she described the reaction of the audience, and of her family, to the film:

Women were passing by, many of them teary eyed […]. My mom […] later said that it was as though she cried out all of her longstanding pain, freed herself of it, relieved her soul.
I know that people who have seen this film are beginning to publish posts about their childhood, to be interested in the history of their kin. In this way, those whom we loved and who loved us can again appear beside us. (Eremeeva 2017)

If the television is a “bad teacher,” then cinema offers instead the potential for active engagement within a community, with its past, present, and future. At the same time, the film’s subjective exploration of the everyday life of the not-so-distant past in an isolated village recalls the similar tendency of the Soviet poetic school of the 1960s-70s.

In an interview in the newspaper Trud, Everstova noted that in the past, the “small peoples” like the Sakha (Yakut) were written about and filmed by “representatives of other, ‘large’ peoples”: “But now we have begun to speak about ourselves. And it seems to me that we have something to say about ourselves both to Russia and to the world” (Pavliuchik 2016).

Elizabeth Papazian
University of Maryland

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Works Cited

Eremeeva, Kiunnei. 2017. “‘Kinodoch’ Tat'iany Everstovoi: Chto ostalos' za kadrom,” Interview with Tat'iana Everstova. Yakutiia 40 (12 October): 13.

Kuznetsov, Dmitrii. 2016. “‘Moi dalekie predki byli shamanami,’” Interview with Tat'iana Everstova. Svobodnaia pressa (16 August).

Pavliuchik, Leonid. 2016. “‘Nam, iakutam, est’ chto rasskazat’ o sebe miru…,’” Interview with Tat'iana Everstova. Trud 21 October.

Rony, Fatimah Tobing. 1996. The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle. Durham: Duke University Press.


His Daughter, Sakha, 2016
Color, 96 min.
Director: Tatiana Everstova
Language: Yakutian, Russian
Script: Tatiana Everstova, Rozalia Lebedeva
Director: Tatiana Everstova
Cinematography: Wesley Mrozinski
Composer: Jiri Heger
Editor: Artem Astapovich
Cast: Sveta Portniagina, Prokopy Yakovlev, Varvara Novogodina
Producers: Tatiana Everstova, Maria Everstova
Production Company: Khoro OyUluun Production

Tat'iana Everstova: His Daughter (Ego doch' / Kini kyyha, 2016)

reviewed by Elizabeth Papazian © 2018

Updated: 2018